Beyoncé Knowles has reached such a high level of superstar status that she’s virtually untouchable.
Being that popular and powerful has its pros and cons. For one, it allows for greater artistic and creative freedom. Beyoncé has proven tenfold that she can produce amazing work that’s successful critically and commercially, so she can afford to take more risks.
On the other hand, there is a lot of expectation for otherworldly greatness, especially from an artist of Beyoncé’s caliber. The near-catastrophic performance of “Run This World (Girls)” is a prime example of when these expectations run rampant. People were expecting either a touching ballad or a fierce club bumper.
Instead, she switched things up and delivered Major Lazer’s “Pon De Floor” with new girl power lyrics. The reaction was lukewarm, at the very best.
But Beyoncé was just beginning with “Run The World”. Her newest album 4 is the full realization of her risk-taking ventures, possibly spurred or influenced by her dumping her father as her manager. 4 has Beyoncé pushing the limits of her vocal abilities and musical tastes, trying out new sounds and harkening back to old styles to create, surprisingly, an incredibly cohesive pure R&B album. It stands as one of the year’s best, hands down.
The album opens up with “1+1″, which features one of Beyoncé’s most affecting and fearless vocal performances ever. The whole album has Beyoncé stretching those golden chords of hers to squeeze out every ounce of emotion the songs have to offer and lay them out for consumption. Even the album’s most radio-friendly track, “Best Thing I Never Had,” has Beyoncé nearly screaming her frustration at a disappointing lover. On “I Care,” she pulls out the power in her lower register, which is very effective with the song’s relatively short, punchy phrasing. Conversely, “Love On Top” has her slowly climbing keys until the song’s amazing climax. Everyone knows that Beyoncé is one of the best singers of her generation, but she has never been more exciting than she is on 4.
The experimentation doesn’t stop there. Beyoncé’s greatest risk is recording an album primarily full of R&B songs. After hearing the album in full, the release of “Run The World” is even more puzzling, since it’s nowhere near representative of the album. Beyoncé plays with different sounds, but it all links back to a decidedly urban, drum-based sound. There’s the fun and flirty “Countdown,” a cousin of “Get Me Bodied” with horn-driven verses and a dancehall-lite chorus. “Love on Top,” one of the album’s highlights, offers up a brilliant refresh of the classic Motown sound. She even looks to herself for “Party,” which sounds like it could have been on 2003′s Dangerously In Love. “End of Time” has marching band influences, but it is also pretty danceable. Beyoncé’s choice to do a true- blue R&B record is definitely a nice surprise, and comforting amidst the club direction other R&B stars are taking.
Even the ballads aren’t what we are used to, carrying a slightly darker tone. Album opener “1+1″ can only be described as a tour de force. “I Was Here” is definitely new lyrical territory for Beyoncé, a Diane Warren-penned ballad that contemplates a person’s legacy. I do think that Warren over-exaggerated about it being a “career song” like Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, but it is a poignant standout. “I Miss You” is both haunting and gorgeous, with an ominous vocal and very sparse production surrounding the beats of the 808 drum.
There have been quite a few mistakes made with the release of this album, the latest being a week three weeks in advance. What 4 shows is that Beyoncé isn’t afraid to make mistakes, and actually embraces them. The result of her adventurous nature is a great album of interesting and new (for her) material. Yet, with all of this experimentation and risk taking, 4 is clearly a Beyoncé album, which might be the best risk of them all.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Brandon’s Favorites: “Love On Top,” “Countdown,” “Best Thing I Never Had”